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Laughing Out Loud: The Devolution of the American Sitcom

Put a cat in a bumblebee suit and one person finds it hilarious, while another person thinks it’s animal cruelty. What’s funny? Isn’t having a sense of humor sort of a subjective thing anyway?

Comedy shows based on situational humor might seem more difficult to pull off, but it’s not like there aren’t distinctive trends that have happened over the years. America’s sense of humor has changed quite a bit over the last couple of decades.

If you want some perspective, just turn on Nick at Nite. Those shows have all had their time in the sun, from “The Cosby Show” and “Home Improvement” to “Family Matters” and “the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” Don’t get me wrong, I often find myself singing the Fresh Prince theme song, and I’m still a fan of the show because I remember it when I was a kid. But people in their early 20s don’t watch that show because they find the jokes funny; they watch it because they find the show’s existence funny.

“Full House” had a whole cast of attractive characters but the jokes were stale and the messages were cheesey. A common trope in these old sitcoms is that the characters knew they were participating in a television show; today, that makes them even harder to watch. Will Smith frequently broke the fourth wall. I mean, seriously, Zach Morris actually stopped time to talk to his audience. That was funny?

The ‘90s had some shows that were geared towards the new millennium and its new brand of comedy. “Married with Children” was overtly chauvinistic and was made to appeal mainly to men, but it still did something different than most popular sitcoms before it. The show concentrated on the dysfunctional American family, without the need to stress moralistic episodes or sweet hidden messages. There had been shows before “Married with Children” that had bickering siblings or couples, but there was always some cutesy segway to talk about how they loved each other by episode’s end. Meanwhile, Al Bundy generally got screwed over at the end of episodes. The audience pretty much expected it, and was vastly entertained.

“Seinfeld” ditched the family setup and proudly made itself a show about nothing in particular. Every show was different and, more importantly, relatable. It felt like Jerry Seinfeld was just painting scenarios to accompany his already stellar stand-up, and that’s why it was such a huge success. With “Seinfeld,” America was getting over the idealized family portrait and began falling in love with real, awkward and sometimes tragic, everyday situations.

As more time went on, laugh tracks began to lose their charm. Americans craved real situations, and even audience laughter could break the realism of it all. Then came the American blueprint for the modern sitcoms: “Arrested Development.”

The initially underrated but currently trendy “Arrested Development” anticipated the curve and embraced the idea that Americans wanted more intelligent comedy, rather than the awful random cutaway gags you see on “Family Guy.” Yes, there were often messages peppered into the endings of “Arrested Development” episodes, but the show never stopped being funny witty. It also had a rather important aesthetic to it: the characters were hilarious but they weren’t so obnoxiously aware of how funny they were. In fact, they had no idea. And every popular sitcom you watch now, whether it’s “The Office” or “30 Rock,” really run off that. Of course, the writing is excellent, but it helps to have an idea of what format is tickling the majority at the time.

You can attribute comedy to writing. Appeal is built into the writing, too. It’s the writing that has struck such a great balance in a show like “The Simpsons,” a show that’s been around as long as most of us at UCI have been. But even that show has seen its successes and failures based on American demand. Trends in American comedy have changed much in the course of one college student’s life. It’ll be intriguing to see what’s funny in the coming years for America.

Until then, lighten up and have a sense of humor.